'Survival economy': Winnipeg's homeless struggling amid opioid crisis, lack of housing, say advocates

Winnipeg is seeing visible effects of an opioid crisis and the city's most vulnerable population is struggling to survive without desperately needed supports, say local advocates.

Non-profits say they're scrambling to keep up with demand as they see more people using their services

An increase in crystal meth and opioid use is behind the rise of homelessness and crime in the city, say advocates.

Winnipeg is now seeing visible effects of an opioid crisis, and the city's most vulnerable population is struggling to survive without desperately needed housing supports, say local advocates.

"I like to call it the survival economy," said Greg MacPherson, executive director of the West Broadway Community Organization. 

"It's a complicated community, but in the last 18 months we've seen the presence of, I guess, behaviour that's troubling. A lot of that, I think, stems from people using substances and maybe not having the supports around them that they need to do that in a healthy way."

Business owners in the West Broadway area reached out to media earlier this week, frustrated about a homeless camp that sprung up in the area around Portage Avenue at Maryland Street, behind several local businesses — including a McDonalds, a Tim Hortons and a Rexall pharmacy.

MacPherson said what draws Winnipeg's homeless community to that corner is the same thing that draws many other Winnipeggers.

"It's a lucrative place. It's a thoroughfare that is good for business," he said. "And I think it's the same for these young people. They're looking to survive, to find a way to work together, and they have community there. Those businesses … sell them low-cost food and they offer them a place to congregate and to be together in safety."

'In the last 18 months, we've seen the presence of, I guess, behaviour that's troubling,' said West Broadway Community Organization executive director Greg MacPherson. 'A lot of that, I think, stems from people using substances and maybe not having the supports around them that they need to do that in a healthy way.' (CBC)

Many are in the grips of addiction or have mental health issues and cannot find housing or support, said MacPherson, which leads to an increase in crime in the area.

"A lot of bike theft, petty crime, people are having stuff that's saleable stolen out of their yards or stolen from their cars. And people are using drugs that are illegal, and that's challenging, obviously."

MacPherson cited the availability of illegal opioids and crystal meth as the main driver behind a rise in crime not just in West Broadway, but across the city.

Opioid crisis

It's something the Winnipeg Police Service has been warning of for years, and Winnipeg's mayor said the crisis is fully here.

"One of the things that we are seeing not just in West Broadway, but city-wide, is the effects of a national opioid crisis," Mayor Brian Bowman told CBC earlier this week. "We're losing people in our community."

The Winnipeg Police Service reported an eight per cent increase in violent crime in 2016 and blamed increased gang activity due to the influx of illegal opioids.

"Officers are dealing with the problems associated with methamphetamine, cocaine and opioids on a daily basis," the police service said in a news release in July.

"Street gangs compete for territory, often leading to violence. Drug users often resort to crimes to fuel their addiction."​

Struggling to provide

Several non-profits told CBC they're seeing higher numbers of homeless people using their programs and in some cases, those organizations are struggling to provide services.

"It's getting worse," said Lynda Trono, pastor with West Broadway Community Ministry on Furby Street. "There's more drug use. So we've had to close some of our washrooms. We still have one and people can use that, but we have students in the building, we have a daycare, and we don't want them exposed to that kind of thing."

About eight people use the church's benches to sleep every day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. when the building is open, she said, but then spend the night walking. "It's too cold to stay still. They come in and they're sleeping on our benches because nobody else will let them sleep.

The church's building manager cleans up needles left strewn near the ministry on a daily basis, she added.

Pastor Lynda Trono, centre, says the West Broadway Community Ministry is seeing an increase in drug use among the city's vulnerable population. (West Broadway Community Ministry/Facebook)

Despite that, there is no thought of closing the church to people who need a place to sleep during the day. "As long as there's room, we can hold about eight people on those benches. We'll keep doing it."

Nearby, the Nine Circles Community Health Centre on Broadway has seen a dramatic increase in the number of homeless and vulnerable people using its clinic.

Some of the things we're seeing from our perspective aren't particularly new.… What's different now is volume.- Mike Payne, Nine Circles Community Health Centre

"Some of the things we're seeing from our perspective aren't particularly new.… What's different now is volume," said Mike Payne, executive director of Nine Circles.

"We normally would have kind of built a relationship with, say, five or 10 people in the winter, 15 to 25 people over the summer that would kind of be really present in the community. 

"We're now looking at ... between 60, 80, 100 people who have come into the neighbourhood. It just makes it almost impossible for [organizations], with the resources that they currently have, to [provide support] when you've got that kind of volume."

The clinic has looked at possibly reducing its hours to consolidate staff, who Payne said need extra support to deal with the influx, along with considering extra security and renovating some of their infrastructure to handle damage.

The number of people coming in for harm-reduction kits, including kits that contain naloxone — a powerful drug that can be used to treat an opioid overdose — has more than doubled from 250 a month to about 600, he added.

Open the legislature: advocate

The Augustine United Church on River Avenue said it hopes to provide mats on the floor in its guild hall to provide overnight shelter come January, pending funding for the program.

Augustine United, too, has seen an increase in the number of people using its programs over the past few summers, said Jeff Carter, chair of the church's council.

What was normally a drop-in rate of about 80 people for the church's soup kitchen four days a week is now closer to 100 on average, he said.

The solution to homelessness isn't easy, he said, adding meaningful employment and mental health support are two parts of the puzzle.

He also pointed to the housing first approach to preventing homelessness — an approach that says challenges like addiction and mental health problems are best addressed once a person has stable housing.

"If only there were some way agencies could provide some basic housing for these people," Carter said.

Trono offers a more radical idea to provide immediate housing and safe spaces.

"I think the Ledge [Manitoba Legislature] should be opened up," she said. "I think if our society and our government isn't going to provide housing, maybe they need to open their space. They have ongoing security there. They could just do it."

More housing, more rec spaces

Family Services Minister Scott Fielding wouldn't entertain the notion of opening the Manitoba Legislative Building to the city's homeless population, but did say the government is open to "viable" ideas.

"We're interested in listening to ideas from all individuals and that's why we went through a big housing strategy. That hasn't been done over the last seven or eight years and we think it's time to refresh that," he said.

"Anyone that has good ideas in terms of providing housing solutions for Manitobans, we're going to look at."

Family Services Minister Scott Fielding said he is open to 'viable' ideas to help Winnipeg's homeless population. (CBC)

Fielding pointed to a number of housing initiatives the provincial government is supporting, including additional funding through Siloam Mission for housing for women and transitional supports through Resource Assistance for Youth.

MacPherson said there are opportunities in the city to provide more help for young people.

"We have community centres all over the city, all over the inner city that are under-utilized. There's very little interplay between departments to bring these young people in and give them places to grow."

"If there's ways that we can better utilize our community centres, that's obviously something we want to do," said Mayor Bowman. "I think it's a great idea and I'd be willing to do whatever we could to help if there's tangible suggestions that folks have."

Community solutions

In the meantime, organizations and businesses are looking for local solutions. MacPherson said his organization has been talking to the Bear Clan about bringing a chapter of the community patrol to the West Broadway neighbourhood.

"A lot of the inner-city neighbourhoods are looking to [them] because it provides ... a concrete nuts-and-bolts answer to this.

I think this is our new normal for a while, [so we need to] have a plan in place.- Mike Payne

"We're working to bring them here. We've had a lot of conversation and I hope over the winter we can make that happen."

If there's any silver lining to the issues in the city, it's that local businesses and organizations are talking about how they can help, said Nine Circles' Payne.

"Lots of the community organizations are having to talk with each other and think about, 'How do we all contribute to this?' Because it's more than just one organization can do.

"I think this is our new normal for a while, [so we need to] have a plan in place."